From Villain to Hero
By John J. Raspanti
Robert Ryan was never really impressed by himself.
After being told he was one of the screens all-time heavies, He said “I guess they never saw me in most of my pictures. Still, I’ve never stopped working so I can’t complain.”
Ryan also mocked his own looks…”I had a long seamy face.”
Handsome or not his ruggedness added to the realism he attempted to bring to each of his roles. People who met him including his co-stars said he was one of the nicest people they ever worked with. Heavily involved in liberal politics his entire life Ryan, was the total opposite of the bad guys he portrayed.
How was he able to tap into his dark side?
Artistic by nature, Robert Bushnell Ryan was born November 11, 1909 in Chicago, Illinois. Ryan’s father was a builder, who owned his own company. Robert had no interest in following in his fathers footsteps. As a young boy he read Shakespeare which really annoyed his father. His father nudged him towards the boxing ring hoping to knock some of the ‘drama’ out of him. He wanted to write and dreamed of being a journalist or better a playwright. Problem was this was the depression so Robert took on some odd jobs… ship’s stoker, sand-hog, ranch-hand, cemetery-plot pitchman and later salesmen. It was all about a paycheck.
He enrolled in Dartmouth University in 1932 still dreaming of being a writer. He ended up on the boxing team and surprised everyone (except himself) by winning the university’s heavyweight championship. He went undefeated in his four years at Dartmouth.
He graduated and came back to Chicago. His parents were still advising him to give up his dream and get to work. He did so by modeling and acting in some amateur plays. He then decided to risk it all. He took all the money he had…300 dollars…and invested it in an oil well. The Irish eyes were smiling as the well turned into a gusher.
Robert took his oil money and came to Hollywood. He debated enrolling at the Pasadena Playhouse where he might have bumped into a guy named George Bessolo, but instead he ended up at Max Reinhardt’s acting school where he met his future wife Jessica. After a month a scout from Paramount came out to see the rangy kid from Chicago but came away unimpressed…”He (Ryan) is not the type for movies”
His own mother heartily agreed. After he informed her of his desire be an actor she said…”But…you can’t act!”
Ryan ignored criticism of his ability and continued to work at it, even singing and dancing a number of times. This time stingy old Paramount was impressed. They signed him to a contract that paid 75 bucks a week. He had a number of bit parts but continued to study other actors, watching and learning. Paramount dropped him after a year. Ryan continued to work freelance. He acted along side such names as Pat O’Brien, Randolph Scott, and Fred Astaire. Some of the critics had begun to comment on the 6’4 Ryan. He needed a breakthrough role. Even his mother was looking at him differently.
“My mother” replied Robert…Bless her, is offended by my tough roles…but she doesn’t object to the money I make.”
The ‘tough roles’ are what most people remember about Ryan, but there was so much more to his talent. He could easily change from the bad guy at black rock to a heroic boxer in THE SET-UP. Let’s go explore three of his movies that show off his ability to transform himself from sinister to kind and back again.
Ryan got his big break with the 1947 film noir classic CROSSFIRE. Extremely controversial for its time, CROSSFIRE is an exciting thrillerdrama that deals head on with bigotry and hate. A kindly Jewish man is found dead in his apartment and the evidence points to a soldier. Ryan plays Montgomery who comes upon the scene and immediately begins to help police captain Finlay played by Robert Young. He seems kind and very helpful pointing the captain in the direction of…an innocent man. “Anyway I can help, yes sir” he says as tight as the devil. He even smiles. But still there’s something not right about Montgomery.
Police Captain Finlay: What kind of guys?
Montgomery: You know the kind. Played it safe during the war, keepin’ themselves in civvies, nice apartments, swell dames… you know the kind.
Before long Robert Mitchum cast as Sgt. Peter Keely saunters into the police station to talk things over with Captain Finlay.
Working next to some talented actors, Ryan makes the most of his screen time. His secret in CROSSFIRE is that he gives his character equal shadings of sharp awareness and dim bulb stupidity. The man believes everything he says, his racist brush reducing most people to anything he says they are. He truly hates most everyone (especially Jewish people) whom he feels have things way too easy. In the barracks with some of the other soldiers he mocks one of them, a southerner for being a stupid hillbilly. He glowers and stares and continues to badger. He uses his towering height and physique to intimidate. In all of his scenes Ryan underplays it, never allowing his performance to veer over the top.
Talking about the ‘others’ (Jews) he’s as intense as a bomb that’s ready to explode. It’s quite a chilling and believable performance. The other two Roberts, Young and Mitchum, are both quite good in their roles. But it’s Ryan who steals the movie.
In 1948 Robert Ryan was rewarded for his powerful performance. He was nominated for an academy award for best supporting actor.
After garnering so much acclaim, an academy award nomination and endless respect from his peers, Robert changed course and decided to play the hero. He was cast as Bill ‘Stoker’ Thompson in director Robert Wise’s lean, mean masterpiece…THE SET-UP.
THE SET-UP is arguably the greatest boxing movie ever filmed. Its raw bone style mixed with a dose of noir and drama combine to make it at seventy two real time minutes, an emotional experience in dreams, heartbreak and reality. The scenes of the screaming mob during the fights are incredible in their symbolism. The film begins with a ‘meet’ between Stokers corrupt manager Tiny, played by George Tobias and the manager of the other fighter Tiger Nelson in a small town somewhere in Americana called Paradise City. Loitering in the background and supplying an occasional wisecrack is actor Percy Helton cast here as ‘Red’, Stoker’s trainer. A few years later, as Hamlet, he will appear in THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN attempting to teach a hood by the name of “Boulder” how to speak like Superman.
The setup is made and Stoker’s manager and trainer are happy. They split the money (sort of) and then proceed not to tell Stoker of the arrangement. Except Red is not so sure…
Red: I tell you, Tiny, you gotta let him in on it.
Tiny: How many times I gotta say it? There’s no percentage in smartenin’ up a chump.
Stoker has other ideas. He believes he can win. He might be thirty five years old and past his prime but he can still punch and for that matter dream. There’s the crux of the film. Winning is more then just defeating Tiger Nelson to Stoker, its winning the dream and the battle with himself. Tough and tender, ethical and compassionate Ryan injects Stoker with a tragic yet heroic power. His scenes with Audrey Totter who play his wife in the film, are touching and effective. She’s tired of her life as a fighter’s wife. Ryan uses his eyes very effectively in a number of scenes. When he talks about being only ‘one punch away’ from the big money they light up and sparkle. But then later as he gazes at the hotel where his wife is or the empty seat he bought for her in the arena, despair and a quiet despondence creep in. It’s impossible not to cheer for him…
Cary Grant told Robert…”I want you to know that I just saw The Set-Up and I thought your performance was one of the best I’ve ever seen”
The praise was unanimous. Three years later Robert starred for the second time with Ida Lupino in ON DANGEROUS GROUND…
Cast as embittered detective Jim Wilson, Ryan once again dives into the dark side. In the first half of the film we watch as Wilson, a basically honest man becomes more and more caustic and violent. He’s sick and tired of all the filth and decay that he deals with on a daily basis. His interrogations are turning more and more violent…
“Why do you make me do it? You know you’re gonna talk! I’m gonna make you talk! I always make you punks talk! Why do you do it? Why?
Ryan shouts these words, as if he’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He’s one punch away from losing his job, so his boss sends him up north to solve the murder of a local girl. He hooks up with vengeful Walter Brent played by Ward Bond whose daughter was murdered. Later in the film he meets Mary, a blind girl who senses something ‘else’ in Jim other than just violence. Ida Lupino plays Mary with grace, understanding and vulnerability. Her scenes with Ryan are beautifully played as these two lonely souls connect.
As good as everybody is in the film, Ryan outshines them all. He shows us Wilson’s loneliness and bitterness, and than later we see a man who finally may have found somebody to believe in. He again uses his eyes, his face a road map of subtleness. It’s an amazing, powerful and nuanced transition and Ryan makes us believe it.
In ON DANGEROUS GROUND Ryan had combined the ‘bad’ from CROSSFIRE and the ‘good’ from THE SET-UP to create a complicated man named Jim Wilson.
A year later he would again impress as scheming charmer Ben Vandergroat opposite James Stewart in THE NAKED SPUR. This time his villain is a laughing manipulator, a hyena of a man who takes great joy in using anyone and everyone. It’s quite a performance.
Over the next twenty years he would star opposite Spencer Tracy in another classic called BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK and that same year as a near blind Marshall in Robert Webb’s THE PROUD ONES. He did some TV in the mid fifties and early sixties and then returned to the movies in THE DIRTY DOZEN in 1967, LAWMAN with Burt Lancaster and THE WILD BUNCH in 1969.
Ryan achieved some more acclaim in 1973 for his performance in THE ICEMAN COMETH. Sadly this would be his last performance.
Today most people remember him mostly for his villainous roles, but as he proved over and over again his range as actor was as impressive as his presence on screen.
When he died in 1973, Newsweek wrote…”Ryan died this year, leaving behind a lifetime of roles too small for his talent.”
Sadly there’s some truth to this last statement, but when Ryan got the chance he showed what the term “actor” really meant.